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Will There Be a Nobel Prize in Literature This Year?


The institution that chooses the laureate is embroiled in a scandal threatening its authority — and the award itself.
STOCKHOLM — The Nobel Prize in Literature is always a source of great interest, but the organization behind the prestigious award finds itself in the throes of a high-profile crisis so severe that it is unclear whether it will be able to pick a winner this year.
The Swedish Academy, the Stockholm-based organization that awards the prize, is struggling to cope with a situation completely at odds with its reputation as a distinguished advocate of literary excellence.
With its echoes of the #MeToo movement, the scandal may ultimately require the intervention of the Swedish king to deal with its multifaceted nature — allegations of sexual harassment, the suggestion that women were taking the fall for the misdeeds of men, and the departure of several board members.
Withholding the prize is not unprecedented, but it occurs only under extreme circumstances: It has happened seven times, during the world wars and in 1935. (The decision will not affect the other Nobel Prizes, which are chosen by separate institutions.)
The academy is expected to announce on Friday whether it will award the prize this year, but does it have the credibility — or even enough members — to do so?
The Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter reported in November that 18 women had accused the French photographer Jean-Claude Arnault of sexual assault or harassment. Mr. Arnault also ran Forum, a popular cultural venue in Stockholm that received support from the academy.
Mr. Arnault co-owns the club with his wife, Katarina Frostenson, a poet and a member of the academy.
The paper reported that Mr. Arnault had been accused of mistreating women over more than 20 years in properties that the academy owns in Paris and Stockholm.
According to news reports in Sweden, the victims included the Crown Princess Victoria, who said she was inappropriately touched by Mr. Arnault at an academy event.
Sara Danius, a literary scholar and first woman to lead the Swedish Academy, was forced out in mid-April after she severed the ties between the organization and Mr. Arnault and Forum. She also hired a law firm late last year to investigate the academy’s ties with Mr. Arnault.
That came a week after three other members of the academy walked out over the allegations of assault and harassment, creating a Nobel-related crisis without precedent .
The ouster of Ms. Danius prompted an outpouring of support, regarded by many as a case example of a woman taking the fall for a man’s bad behavior.
The day after her removal, several public figures — including Sweden’s minister for enterprise and innovation, Mikael Damberg — dressed in Ms. Danius’s signature pussy-bow blouse and posted selfies on social media in a show of support.
The Academy now has 10 active members instead of the full 18.
Members are elected for life, and there is no provision that allows them to resign. Under the current rules, the seats of members who quit will remain unfilled until their deaths.
King Carl XVI Gustaf, who is the patron of the Swedish Academy, has proposed changing the rules to allow members to leave voluntarily.
The board now finds itself in a curious predicament: Even if it could vote in new members to replace those who quit, it is short of the 12-member quorum required for their approval.
Eight members are needed to vote on a laureate with a simple majority. But the Nobel goes beyond the numbers.
“They need to also convince the world that they are actually doing hard, serious work on picking a suitable candidate for the prize,” said Mads Rosendahl Thomsen, a professor of comparative literature at the University of Aarhus, in Denmark.
In other words, the credibility of the prize is at stake. The literature prize, which is awarded to one of around 200 nominees, often baffles and provokes, but it confers instant status on the recipient.
Members usually decide on a shortlist of five finalists in May, and then have all summer to dive deep into their works.
“Either the Nobel Prize will be awarded this year or we will postpone it and award two next year,” Per Wastberg, an author and member of the Swedish Academy, said by telephone. He said that the two options would be discussed on Thursday and that a decision was likely to be announced in a statement on Friday.
James Wood, a prominent literary critic and professor at Harvard, said taking a timeout would be the right thing to do.
“They have this scandal overshadowing them,” he said in a Skype interview. “And particularly because it’s associated with a certain kind of humane values, I think it’s pretty risky to try to award the prize in a moment when the committee’s own values have been compromised in this way.”

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